The San Jon Christmas Miracle
Every morning while I waited for my kids to climb on the school bus, I noticed more and more homeless people pushing their shopping carts past where I stood. The sight sent a wave of fear coursing through my nervous system. Our family was always one paycheck away from living on the streets. I don’t know where these drifters spent their days, but they camped out in the laundry rooms of the apartment complexes scattered around our neighborhood at night. These vacant spaces were a warm and dry place where a person could sleep for free. In the morning, the homeless marched by the bus stop with everything they owned squeezed into the metal baskets of the shopping carts they stole from local grocery stores. There was a look of vacant acceptance in their eyes. It was like watching the Grapes of Wrath without the antique vehicles. Once you became homeless in sunny Southern California, it was impossible to make your way back. Our family was one paycheck away from disaster. The company that owned the warehouse where my husband worked declared bankruptcy. It was rumored he’d be on unemployment by January. My job moved thirty miles closer to L.A. They didn’t pay me enough to make the commute. We had some money saved, but one month without work would eat through that. We decided to take the gamble and strike out for Indiana. On Thanksgiving Day, the decision was made for the Mulligan family to leave California in the dust.
It took us a month to sell our junk. The rest of our belongings we loaded into the back of our old brown van along with three kids, a dog named Fred, and Coco. The cat wasn’t happy with the thought of adventure. He was content to live in the hood he was familiar with. From the moment we pulled away from the curb, he meowed without stopping from the inside of the cat carrier. He kept up his running growl of protest for the first hundred miles of the trip. He finally gave up the fight. He was satisfied to confine his objections to the hiss he gave my youngest child, Stinker when he tried to pet the angry monster through a hole in the lid. The other kids decided to leave Coco alone. They had experience with his long, sharp claws.
By evening, we made it through Arizona and were about to drive into New Mexico. My husband’s eyes were glued on the road ahead of him. I noticed him glance in the side mirror every now and then, studying the car we were towing behind us. The weather was about to change. Dark clouds hung low in the sky. We drove through deserts until we reached a barren terrain covered with patches of green. Bill was quieter than usual as we left the California State line in our rearview mirror. I knew he had a lot on his mind. He was worried about what we were going to do once we got to Tecumseh, Indiana. We were taking a risk moving back to Tecumseh, but the odds were against us if we stayed in California. In life, you seldom have the chance to bet on a sure thing. Sometimes your only option was to throw the dice and hope lady luck was on your side.
The plan was to make it to Tecumseh by Christmas Eve. We’d camp out at my mom’s place until we found an apartment to rent. Bill and I would find jobs. The cost of living was better in Indiana. It wouldn’t be long before we were back on our feet again. We’d work hard to build a better life than we had in sunny Southern California. I wasn’t as worried about our new life in Tecumseh as I was about this weird trip we were taking. We had a lot of miles to travel in the old brown van. Images of the five of us stranded beside the road repeatedly played in my mind. Bill assured me the van was running fine, but I couldn’t stop worrying. It didn’t take long before I found out I had reason to be concerned.
Twenty miles from Tucumcari, it started to snow. The lights inside the van flickered on and off several times. Bill kept driving. He muttered something about the damn lights under his breath. Heavy snow started falling from the sky, making it hard to see even with the windshield wipers moving on high speed. The wind whipped against the side of the van. The roads started getting slick. The world we were traveling turned white. I could feel my body tense as I grabbed the edge of the seat. The kids, except for Stinker, started complaining about being hungry. My youngest child sat in his car seat with the expression he wore when he dropped one of his famous loads into his diaper. It didn’t take long for Mandy and Kenny to complain about the smell. I knew I should climb through the opening in the seat and take care of his predicament, but the road conditions were so adverse I was afraid to unbuckle my seatbelt.
A voice blared over the CB radio. “Hey, you, up there in the brown van. I can’t see the taillights on the car you’re hauling.”
“Are you sure.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve been following you for five miles. They flickered before they went out for good. You should get off the road and find a room for the night?” The anonymous voice said.
“You might be right. I’m going to take the next exit,” Bill said.
I was surprised he’d given in so easy. Stopping this early wasn’t in the budget. We weren’t planning to get a room until we’d made it to the state of Oklahoma. The lousy weather and Stinker’s dirty diaper must have been the motivating factors that caused Bill to listen to the voice, which came over the CB. He pulled off the freeway at the next exit and coasted into the first motel we came to after we made our way down the off ramp. It wasn’t an upscale place, but at least the beds were clean. While I went into the room to deal with Stinker’s problem, Bill unhooked the car from the old brown van. Once Stinker smelled like a human again, we drove down the main strip of Tucumcari. We found a fast food place where we ate dinner.
“We need to get back on the road as soon as I fix the loose connection in the morning. We’re going to have to make up some time if we’re going to get to Indiana by Christmas day. I’m going to drive straight through,” Bill whispered when we were lying in bed later that night. It was hard for me to fall asleep, with images of the Joad family from Grapes of Wrath rambling around in my mind. Coco hissed when I got up to go to the bathroom. I needed to have myself a good cry where no one could hear me. It was a mistake to bring the cat with us. He’d never be able to pull his own weight in an emergency. The feline had no useful purpose except to be a constant reminder about his displeasure in our decision-making abilities.
The problem with the van was an easy fix. All that was required was wire snips and electrical tape to repair the loose connection. The motel breakfast we ate before we got back on the road was filling but bland. We didn’t get far before disaster struck. The brown van was traveling in the right lane when it made a dramatic pull to the side of the highway. Bill did an excellent job of keeping the injured vehicle from plunging down the edge of a cliff next to the road’s shoulder. If the voice over the CB hadn’t suggested we get a room for the night, we all would have plunged to our deaths somewhere in this mountainous terrain. It was like an angel had trumpeted a warning directly from heaven. Bill waited until the traffic cleared before he climbed onto the asphalt. He rounded the front of the van. I watched him kneel beside the right wheel. His head popped up seconds before he walked to the rear of the vehicle and unlocked the door. He cursed under his breath as he removed a red toolbox.
“Why’s dad so mad?” my oldest son, Kenny, said.
“He’s not mad. He’s scared.” I could tell by the way we were leaning to the right there was something wrong with the van he wasn’t going to be able to fix with duct tape and wire snips this time. He wrenched for a few minutes before he moved back into the driver’s seat. “What’s wrong?” I said.
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good.” I could hear the anxiety in his voice.
We waited in the running van while my husband tried to figure out what his next move was going to be. I worried about what would happen when the gas tank was empty. It was the only thing keeping us warm. I could picture the entire family freezing to death inside the van. About the time I was ready to give up all hope of survival, a New Mexico Highway Patrol car pulled to a stop in front of our brown van. Bill went to join the officer in the warm car. He returned to the van a few minutes later. I noticed his lips were drawn so tight I thought they would break if he attempted to smile.
“He’s calling a tow truck. I’m going to unhook the car. We’ll follow the wrecker into town.” He tried to make light of the situation, but his false confidence didn’t reach his eyes. Bill slammed the van door and walked in the direction of the car we were towing. I could feel the van bounce as he released our old Chevy from the trailer hitch. I told the kids to stay put before I opened the door and climbed onto the asphalt. I had to be careful not to slip on the Icey pavement as I made my way around the van. One look at the way the front tire was twisted and bent, and I knew it was going to cost a fortune to get it fixed. I helped my husband unload enough of our belongings from the car for the kids to squeeze inside. We shoved what we could into the back of the van. The rest would have to remain behind on the side of the road. The tow truck pulled up behind us about the time we were piling the kids into the car.
“I thought we were going back to Tucumcari,” I said when we pulled to a stop in front of a rundown garage with an Interstate logo painted near its roof. The building looked like it was once white, but now most of the paint had peeled off to expose patches of the original red brick. One look and I knew we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was like living out an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“This is where the tow truck driver has his shop. He’s also the head mechanic. He said he’d give us a deal on the spindle that needs to be replaced.”
“Sounds like he has a good racket going. What is a spindle anyway?” I said, folding my arms across my chest.
“It’s something to do with the front axle. The guy said we could stay in the motel over there.” Bill pointed in the direction of a tired looking motel, which saw its glory days back in the 1960s. I thought it might be one of those rent by the hour places men took hookers to for an afternoon good time between the sheets
It took Bill fifteen minutes to make all the arrangements. We walked across the snow cover parking lot until we reached a door with a large number seven hanging on its front. Bill shoved the key in the lock. Fleas attacked us as soon as we stepped onto the dingy grey carpet. They didn’t seem to be so numerous on the bed. Mandy and Kenny climbed into the bed, closest to the bathroom. I clambered into the bed closest to the door with Stinker. Mandy let coco out of his cage. The cat snarled before he disappeared under the bed. Fred whined. He needed to find a tree where he could relieve himself. Bill put a leash around Fred’s neck and zipped his jacket up to his neck. I reached for the television remote. I found a channel playing an episode of Cops. The reception was terrible, and the antenna picked up CB traffic from the interstate. “Breaker 1 9” overpowered the show’s theme song Bad Boys. Cold air filled the room when my husband and Fred moved through the door.
When Bill came back from walking Fred, he sat down at the foot of the bed where I was resting. I could sense a hesitancy in him. He had something to say, but he wasn’t sure about how I would react. “What?” I finally asked.
“The lady at the desk told me not to let the kids play outside. They have packs of wild dogs around here that might eat them. They have bleached out cattle skulls hanging on the fence in front of this place. It’s sort of creepy,” my husband admitted. I pictured us being murdered in our sleep. They would mount our heads on the fence with the cattle bones. We might even make the New Mexico six o’clock news.
“if it comes to them or us, we’re feeding Coco to the wild dogs.” I heard the cat growl as I flipped the channel. I was tired of watching Cops. Muffled CB chatter echoed through the speakers on the television. The same episode of Cops was playing on the second channel I found. When it was over, the Jeopardy theme song blared from the T.V. I flipped the station only to encounter the same Jeopardy episode where we watched Cops earlier. It dawned on me we were viewing the same station in two different time zones. One channel was on Arizona time. The other was on a Texas schedule. New Mexico didn’t seem to matter in the whole scheme of things. I threw the remote across the room, and the kids clapped their hands. They were as frustrated as I was over the Jeopardy dilemma.
“Are you guys hungry? Why don’t we go get something to eat?” Bill said, trying to sound optimistic. We bundled the kids up and loaded them into the car. We drioe into the belly of the town of San Jon, New Mexico, and arrived at a diner that went by the name The Poor House. The population of this village must have been around three hundred. Every eye in the place focused on us when we walked through the door of the restaurant. A nightmare picture of what my life would be like if the mechanic didn’t get the van fixed flashed through my mind.
The last place on earth where I wanted to live was San Jon. There was no telling what these people did for entertainment. I hoped murdering strangers in their sleep didn’t top the list. Maybe their blood lust would be satisfied with the family cat. Coco might come in useful after all. The food the restaurant had to offer was filling but greasy. The locals stared at us while we ate our meal. We didn’t linger over coffee when we were finished eating. I noticed the dried-out cattle skulls attached to the fence in front of the motel when we pulled into the parking lot. As soon as we got to the room, we flipped on the television after everyone had their baths for another round of Cops. We turned in early. A new day might bring an end to our nightmare.
We ate beef jerky and Yoo-hoos for breakfast. Bill went to check on how the van was coming along. All of our belongings were repacked by the time he returned. “I have bad news. They are going to have to order a part. It’s going to take more than I have in my pocket to get that piece of junk fixed.” Bill sat down on the bed and put his head in his hands. “We’re going to have to drive into Tucumcari and take money out of the bank.”
“We need every cent we’ve saved to live on once we get to Tecumseh.” I couldn’t keep the frustration out of my voice. It was Christmas Eve. I didn’t have a thing to feed the kids. We weren’t going to have presents to put under the imaginary tree I was going to pretend was sitting in the corner. If we were stuck in San Jon much longer, we wouldn’t have money to buy gas to leave.
“There are some things that can’t be helped. Paying to have the van fixed is one of them.” Bill walked out the door. I pulled back the edge of the curtain and watched him make his way across the parking lot to the dilapidated garage. The thought played out in my mind that he might keep going and not look back. Men have been known to do things like that, my own father made a similar maneuver when I was a kid. Bill did come back an hour later with his arms loaded with bags of food from the Poor House. “We might as well make the best of this,” he said as he lowered himself onto the bed.
We drove to a bank in Tucumcari. They were about to close their doors early because of the holiday. The short excursion into town lightened everyone’s spirits. The small city was strung with enough Christmas lights to create a festive atmosphere. We found a grocery store where all the employees were dressed up as elves. We bought potato chips, lunch meat, bread, cookies, and milk to keep us fed for a couple of days. The motel room had a small refrigerator. What we couldn’t put in there we placed in the ice chest where we keep drinks while we are on the road. It was a short ride back to the garage in San Jon. My husband handed over the equivalent of our first month’s rent on an apartment in Tecumseh to the greasy mechanic.
I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the tacky motel room and watching Cops on the motel television with lousy reception. I don’t know what it was about people in New Mexico, but they seemed to like Cops and Jeopardy. When I turned on the television, our family was in luck. A Charlie Brown Christmas was playing on both channels. We’d get to watch it twice. The Charles Schulz cartoon was a blast from my past. It was one of my favorites when I was a kid. Charlie Brown goes in search of the spirit of Christmas and finds it in a wimp of a tree nobody else wants. We might have enjoyed the show if radio chatter from passing truckers didn’t bleed into the cartoon. The meaning got distorted due to the constant chatter. I turned off the T.V. when Jimmy Stewart’s face filled up the screen. I couldn’t take watching the movie. It’s a Wonderful life, in this dingy San Jon motel room. Bill wasn’t up for seeing the movie either.
Bill flipped off the lights. The family was in bed, but I suspected only Stinker was asleep. Mandy was pining over the boy she was forced to leave behind. I could hear my daughter’s quiet weep coming from the otherside of the room. Kenny was homesick for his friends. Fred snoring away, curled up on the bed next to Mandy. No matter how dire the situation, he always managed to maintain his happy inbred attitude. Coco still hadn’t come out from under the bed. I was starting to wonder if he’d died from the hair ball, I heard him choking on earlier.
I felt a tear glide down my face seconds before a knock sounded on the door. Bill jumped to his feet and pushed back the edge of the dusty motel curtains. He moved outside and closed the door behind him. When he moved back into the dingy room, he brought a large red cloth bag and a tiny evergreen tree with him. His hair was covered with a white layer of snow. I almost expected him to shout, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” when he sat the red bag down on the bed and opened the drawstring.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” He asked.
“Manage to have that bag delivered,” I said.
“I didn’t,” Bill handed Mandy a wrapped present. I watched her open it and pull out a beautifully knit sweater and a new pair of jeans. She shouted with glee when she found a twenty-dollar bill at the bottom of the gift box.
“Come on, you know you got the motel clerk or that greasy mechanic to put those presents out there.” I sat up in bed and focused a penetrating glare on my husband. I’d be able to tell if he was lying by watching the expression on his face. He could never hide the truth from me.
“I swear I had nothing to do with this. I can prove it. Go look outside. You won’t find a single footprint in the snow.” Bill handed Kenny a bright red package with Saint Nick’s picture plastered all over the wrapping paper.
I jumped out of bed and moved to the window. I could see Bill wasn’t lying about the footprints when I pulled back the edge of the curtain, but I still had my doubts. “It’s snowing hard out there. It wouldn’t take long to cover a person’s tracks at the rate the white stuff is falling,” I pointed out that tiny detail to him. I’m a natural born skeptic.
“There would still be indentations. The snow isn’t falling fast enough to make everything look even.” Kenny tore the paper away from the box, moved aside the paper, and uncovered a PlayStation and a Super Mario game. He shouted his delight at the top of his lungs. His joy bounced off the walls of the cheap motel room like a dodge ball searching for its next victim.
“Seriously. You can’t honestly expect me to believe Santa Clause came to town,” I exclaimed at the top of my voice. I watched my husband hand baby Stinker a box covered in the same paper Kenny’s present was wrapped in. The toddler giggled when he saw the toy train inside. There were little round people included with the toy. Holes built into the train acted like seats where the round artificial people could take a ride.
“Do you have a better explanation?” Bill said as he handed me a package covered in white and red ornament wrapping paper.
I peeled off the paper and opened the box. A bottle of my favorite perfume was waiting for me to find it. I loved the aroma when I tried it in the store, but It was an expensive brand I wouldn’t consider buying for myself. There was a set of socket wrenches for Bill, a bag of doggie treats for Fred, and a can of tuna and a can opener for Coco. The cat ran out from under the bed as soon as the lid was off the tin can, and the pungent odor of fish filled the stale air. Bill reached for the alarm clock radio and pushed the button on the top. The music of Hark the Harold Angels spilled into the shabby room. Laughter echoed in my ears when Bill pulled the last items out of the red bag. He held out a plate filled with homemade Christmas treats and a box of instant hot chocolate. Santa Clause might not have left the presents outside our tacky motel room, but I knew I was living a Christmas miracle in the barren landscape of San Jon, New Mexico.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. It wasn’t the journey to Bethlehem that came to mind, but the flight to Egypt after the angel warned Joseph in a dream. The family left everything they knew behind to face an uncertain future. They were stuck between disaster and an unknown fate. Their only hope of protection from catastrophe was the invisible hand of God.
The Mulligan family persevered. We pulled out of San Jon early on Christmas morning. We made it to Tecumseh ahead of the ice storm that moved across the plains. Coco, the cat, disappeared as soon as he managed to escape from my mother’s house. We never saw him again. I hate to admit I wasn’t sorry about his disappearance. He never was a team player. Fred lived to the ripe old age of eighty dog years. Mandy got over the guy she left behind. Kenny made new friends who played video games with him. Stinker grew two sizes the first year we lived in Tecumseh. Bill and I found good jobs. We bought a house in a crazy neighborhood, but at least homeless people don’t come out from hiding every morning. Whenever the kids complain about moving to Tecumseh, I tell them they should thank their lucky stars. At least we didn’t end up stranded in San Jon, New Mexico.